209: Polish-Soviet War Pt. 3


After a brief pause in the fighting, the Polish-Soviet War would reignite with a Polish invasion of Ukraine.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 209. While both the Polish and Soviet leaders agreed in late 1919 to take a break from fighting, and they began to discuss a ceasefire, both sides knew that this arrangement was only temporary. In both countries leaders were already preparing to resume the conflict, it was just a matter of who, when, and where. The armies of both countries used this time to prepare for the new round of fighting, with more men being sent into the border regions and a greater focus being placed on making sure that they had to weapons and supplies that they needed. For the Polish Army the situation was clear, they were righting for the survival of their new country, or at least the country as they knew it. For the Soviet forces they would be fighting for the future of the revolution, and also the restoration of some of the land that had been part of the Russian Empire before 1914. When comparing the two armies it initially appears that the Russians had all of the advantages. They had far more men, with the Red Army possessing over 5.5 million men in total at the start of 1920. To match these numbers of the Polish army had just over a million men. However, the Poles were able to make greater use of their available manpower, with a far greater percentage of them being actually combat effective. Millions of Red army soldiers either spread out around the country or found themselves stuck in replacement depots waiting for equipment that would allow them to join combat units. The large number of reserves was still a benefit to the Red Army, and the Polish forces would have no way to replace large number of losses if something catastrophically bad should happen.

Before the two armies were the people of the borderlands. Most of the early fighting would occur in these borderlands, or the areas between the zones of secure Polish and Soviet power. In these areas many people who were not directly aligned with either side would suffer from serious violence as both sides moved through during their military campaigns. Throughout late 1919 and early 1920 both sides struggled to control and administer the areas that they had captured by the end of 1919. The Polish authorities found themselves in control of areas with few Polish people, making the control of the territory much more challenging. They would often resort to violence, especially in the areas that it was believed had supported the Russians. This blame fell especially hard on the Jewish population in the region, who were almost always judged to have supported the Communists. As the fighting started up against during the spring of 1920 the violence in the region escalated. As the two armies moved through the territory they often committed atrocities as people who were suspected in anyway of helping the other side were either arrested or killed on the spot. The REd Army added in the extra violence that was always present in its class based revolution. Landowners and local business leaders who remained behind when the Red Army moved into a region were at serious risk of being killed. It was really just a bad time to be a person living in these areas, and there was really nothing they could do, all they could do was hope that they survived.

The Red Army that was preparing for the resumption of hostilities with Poland was very different than the Red Army that had been fighting the Poles since 1918. This was the post-Civil War Red Army, and that meant that many of the improvements that had been made to the Russian military to win the Civil War were not also present in the army that would attack West. At the highest level the Army was still controlled by dedicated Communists, with Trotsky still at its head, however there were large numbers of old Tsarist officers that were actually leading the army, officers that had been brought in during 1918 and 1919 and over the previous year had proven their loyalty and leadership abilities during the fighting with the Whites. There had been some defections to the White Armies early on, but after a year of fighting and with the White forces being by early 1920 far past their point of greatest strength there would be few desertions in 1920. One thing that I probably had not discussed enough is that due to the structure of the Red Army and the general loyalties of the officers the men that were commanding the Red Army at this point were far younger than the officers in the army had been during 1917. It was not at all uncommon to see armies and army groups that were led by men in their 30s, positions that were often occupied by men in their 50s and 60s during the First World War. This brought in new ideas and new ways of fighting, which both sides would take advantage of in the coming campaign.

While the overall effectiveness of the soldiers and officers in the Red Army was greatly increasing the weapons that they had available were also increasing in quantity and quality. This was due to a combination of increased local production and British and French weapons that had been captured from the White Armies during the defeats and retreats of 1919. This allowed the Red Army to bring much more firepower to the front than they had in the past. They had also found new and interesting ways to introduce more firepower onto the battlefield, my favorite of which was the tachanka. The tachanka was a horse drawn cart or buddy that had a machine gun mounted on it, this was a setup that had been used during the First World War, but would see greater use during the Civil War and Polish-Soviet war. The ability to rapidly move a machine gun around the battlefield was a great asset, and it allowed the gun to be rapidly repositioned to provide fire support for an attack or defense, and then it could gallop away before the enemy could properly react. This is just one example of how both sides tried to increase the mobility of their forces, another was simply a much greater emphasis on mounted troops. Both sides would field a higher percentage of cavalry than was typical during the First World War, and they provided a much greater part of both army’s fighting capability. Even though both Polish and Russian cavalry had the same basic goals, they chose to accomplish them in slightly different fashions. The Russian cavalry was generally less organized, but had larger numbers and the more disciplined but smaller Polish units.

During their fighting both sides would have to work around some of the geographical features of the area between where the fighting would start in Western Russia and Warsaw where the Soviet advance would end. In this area the Poles and Soviets would have to work around the same geographical features that had caused so many issues during the First World War, and then would again during the Second. The entire front occupied by the two armies was over a thousand kilometers long, however not all of this territory was suitable for large offensive operations. In the north the new countries of Latvia and Estonia forbid either side to march through their territory, there were also large numbers of lakes and forests which impeded movement. Then on the southern end of the front the Carpathian Mountains and the river Dniester reduced the ability of armies to campaign and so they would be funneled northward. This forced all fighting onto the central area of the front, and this area had its own geographical features, the most noticeable of which was the Pripet Marches. These marshes, roughly 60,000 square miles of them, were broadly in a triangular shape and this caused issues for both sides. For the Russians it would mean that any advance west would need to occur on both the north and south sides of the marshes, splitting their forces but allow the Polish Army to concentrate as one unit on the Western end of the triangle near Warsaw. If the Polish Army then wanted to advance they would then have to split their forces as well, but at least they would meet a Russian army that was similarly divided. These problems and the Polish advantage in the defense would shape the fighting during 1920. All of the geographical oddities of the areas where the fighting would occur were incredibly important because the fighting would be very different than the mostly static fighting that had occurred before 1918. Neither side would be able to construct or man large defenses which would slow the fighting and then meant that the fighting in 1920 would be far closer to the war of movement that the generals of 1914 had dreamt of, rather than the trench bound reality of the First World War.

As I mentioned last episode, Pilsudski and the Polish army planned to attack into Russia as quickly as possible in 1920. They were aiming for April as the start date for their attacks, a date chosen because it was the earliest possible time that an attack would occur but still avoid the worst of the winter weather. This early attack was believed to be absolutely essential because all of the Polish leaders were fully aware that if the Red Army could fully prepare then it would be stronger, both in terms of manpower and in capabilities. The early attack would allow the Polish army to disrupt Soviet preparations. To launch the early offensive the Poles were forced to focus their attack to the south of the Pripet, this also provided the benefit of allowing them to assist the Ukrainians in trying to create an independent Ukrainian nations, which, if it could be created and secured, would be very helpful to an independent Poland as a balance against Soviet Russia.

As with many engagements during the Polish-Soviet war, especially in the early stages, I do not think that I can give you exactly what the numbers were in the armies when the Poles launched their opening attacks. Even if we could determine exactly how many men were available in both armies in Ukraine in 1920 there would still be factors that would make it challenging to determine how many were available to each army at the front. The Red Army had the biggest problems to deal with which pulled many units away from the front lines. Their biggest cause for concern was due to Ukrainian partisans, a constant drain on Soviet manpower in the region. This pulled men away from the front as well as caused supply problems that had to be solved. These problems were exacerbated by a mutiny that took place right before the Polish attack. This resulted in two brigades of Red Army troops who had been stationed in the area mutinying and abandoning the Communists in favor of the Ukrainian partisans led by Petlura. These troops, along with those of Petlura then worked with bands of White Soldiers, who were still active in Western Ukraine along with the anarchists under Makhno. I know that it all sounds a bit confusing, but the basic concept was that even those areas that the Red Army were occupying in Western Ukraine were not truly controlled by them, the control of the areas was very fluid which resulted in a red army that had many things to consider and deal with even before the Polish attack was launched.

The offensive would begin on April 25th and during the first few days of the attack they would experience almost complete and total success. In just the first day the Third Army would advance 55 miles from their starting point. This represented an advance far larger than expected, and instantly the goals for the offensive were expanded. The Fourth and Sixth Armies joined in the attack and also began to advance. All around the front Soviet divisions and units found themselves either cut off and surrounded or in very rapid retreat. In many areas the equipment and especially the artillery would be left behind in a frantic dash to the east. Retreating was at this stage the best option available, any units that actually had the ability to stand and fight were quickly cut off since all of the units around them chose to run. The majority chose the path of retreat, and saved their strength for a later day. This allowed the Polish troops to continue to advance toward their primary goal, the city of Kiev. On May 6th Polish cavalry would approach the city, the Polish plans had taken into account the assumption that the Russians would defend the city rabidly, but instead the Polish cavalry found it to be almost completely abandoned. This was in some ways good and bad for the overall Polish objectives. Capturing the city was of course fantastic, it was one of the overall goals for the attack. However, the fact that it was undefended, and that the Red Army had for the most part retreated from the Polish advance meant that there had been no available opportunities to trap and destroy the Soviet forces. The Red Army already had the advantage in terms of manpower, and capturing some square miles of Ukrainian territory did not really change that equation in any meaningful way. Instead the Polish troops just had to halt the advance after arriving in Kiev, they could not really advance much beyond the city and so they had to re-evaluate the entire situation before determining what to do next.

Up to this point in the attack things had been going incredibly well for the Polish forces. During just two weeks they had attacked, advanced all the way to Kiev (a distance of 200 kilometers), defeated two Soviet army groups and rounded up 30,000 prisoners. But as I mentioned they had not captured as many prisoners as they had hoped, and this left Pilsudski feeling a bit concerned. The entire Polish strategy had been based round a rapid advance to throw off Soviet preparations, and while they had done this, they had not been able to damage the armies in front of them as much as they hoped, instead the enemy had rapidly turned to flight. This meant that the Poles either had to continue on the attack, or they had to find a new place to attack, otherwise the Soviets would be able to recover and launch their own offensive. With this new advance the Polish army was also now in a position where they had to deal with all of the problems that the Red Army had been trying to work through when they were attacked. They now had to try and administer, organize, and control the areas of Ukraine that they had just captured. The leader that they hoped to put in control of the area, Petlura, would prove to not be in anyway up to the task. To be completely fair to him, he did not really have much of a chance. While he had Polish support and some supporters within Ukraine he also had to deal with the large anarchist presence like by Makhno, the White forces in Crimea under Wrangel, and he was of course still fighting against the Reds to the north. The Petlura government would last less than a month, a very short space of time, and a short lived benefit for the Polish attack that did not justify the cost. Even if the attack did not cost a large number of lives, it had over extended their army into a large new area that brought them little in terms of advantages. This overextension would then become a huge disadvantage when the Soviet attack began. As one Polish soldier would say ‘We ran all the way to Kiev, and we ran all the way back.’

Along with causing some issues for the Army around commitments and overextension the attack in Ukraine caused some political issues for Pilsudski, or at least provided some political benefits for the Soviets. Privately the Soviet leaders were not greatly concerned about the Polish attack, however publicly they would use it for the huge propaganda boost that it could be among the Russian people. As was so often the case in history, and even during the Russian Civil War, the Communist officials were able to use the invasion of a foreign power to bolster their support on the home front. The announce from the Party, released on April 29th, would say “Honourable citizens! You cannot allow the bayonets of the Polish lords to determine the will of the Great Russian nation. The Polish lords have shamelessly and repeatedly shown that they care not who rules Russia but only that Russia shall be weak and helpless.” This brought many people over to the Communists that may have been at the very least on the fence about their control of the country before the Polish attack. It really could not have been a better time for the Communist leaders to gain this new support, with the White Armies defeated and all efforts being put on consolidating their power within Russia. They had been given a gift by the Polish advance, a legitimate national outrage that could be channeled against a foreign army that posed very little real threat to Russia as a whole.

Before the Polish army even began moving towards Kiev the Red Army was already planning its own attack. After the start of the offensive they were in some ways excited about where the Poles had chosen to attack. There would be two parts to the Soviet counter-attack, the first would be an attack directly against the new Polish positions in Ukraine and then this would be followed by a more general offensive across the entire front. For the counter attack in Ukraine they would heavily utilize the First Cavalry Army, or as it was often referred to the Konarmiya. This was a force that had been initially formed in November 1919 as a reaction to what had been experienced when fighting the White Armies. During that fighting the Red Army had been at a disadvantage due to the prevalence of Cossack cavalry units in the White forces. To combat this threat the Red Army formed the First Cavalry Army, which was made by essentially just taking all of the cavalry units available, or most of them, and putting them all together. This gave them simply overwhelming numbers in many of their engagements. By the time that it was transferred to the Polish front the Konarmiya had 16,000 men, with many of them being fresh recruits that had been brought in early in 1920. This force would be on its way to the Polish front before the attack on Kiev, as early as March discussions had started about moving them from the Caucasus region to the Western Front in anticipation of the Soviet attacks later in the year. This put them in prime position to participate in the counter attack.

That counter-attack would begin on May 26th. For the first several days of the offensive things did not go well for the Soviets. They had very poor intelligence about the state of the Polish defenses in front of them. They were in reality much stronger than they believed, which caused the Soviet army to spread out over the entire front instead of focusing their strength properly. There were also some issues in the tactics being deployed by the Konarmiya and its commanders met on June 2nd to discuss what was happening. One of the important changes that would be made was a shift in tactics away from what they had used against the White forces in the south. This had involved cavalry charges, even against prepared positions, a strategy that had worked against the White defenses but had failed completely against the Poles. The Soviet commanders decided to change tactics and instead of such charges they would instead begin to attack the Polish fortifications in dismounted formation. They were essentially turning their cavalry units into dismounted infantry, and it would work. When the attack continued on June 5th a string of successes would begin that would not end until two and a half months later. This unbroken string of successes was impressive for many reasons, not the least of which the fact that the Russians did not greatly outnumber the Polish defenders and the Russian logistics capabilities were almost non-existent. Even with these handicaps they were able, once they dislodged the Polish defenders, to keep enough pressure on them through constant attacking to prevent the defenders from ever stabilizing the front resulting in a retreat that would only end months later, and far into Polish territory.

With their advance into Poland the Russians would create the Polish Provisional Revolutionary Committee or Polrevkom. This Polrevkom was created by the Russian communist leaders to coordinate and control all of the revolutionary and political work involved in creating a Communist Poland after the invasions of the Red Army were complete. There was a concerted effort to make it clear that the Polrevkom was separate from the Russians. The leaders were all Polish and they made it clear that the arrangement was only temporary, with a new government to be created later by the Polish leaders after they were unified and the nationalists in Warsaw were overthrown. From the very beginning they would run into a huge variety of problems that would very quickly result in the downfall of the Polrevkom. As was so often the case, the most pressing issue was food. The new committee had to try and grapple with supplying the cities with food, and that meant either getting it from the peasants or taking it from the peasants. They chose the former policy and negotiated with the peasants to try and secure the food. This would cause problems later, but was necessary at the beginning because the peasants in Poland were very different than those in Russia that hte Communists had dealt with before. They were generally wealthier and more organized, and with the limited strength available to Polrevkom meant that negotiating was the only real option. There were many other issues for the Polrevkom to try and solve, but most of their problems would be rooted in the fact that they did not enjoy the support of well, anybody, and they also did not have a single leader who could make decisions. Instead there were various members who all had roughly the same amount of control, and their power swayed back and forth, which meant that depending on the situation at the time a different decision might be made in the same circumstances based on the exact specifics of power within the committee at the time. Even if the decisions were completely consistent, that would not have solved the problem of support, they simply did not have enough of it. Even the Polish Socialist party would declare their support for the government in Warsaw, mostly out of concern that the Polrevkom was just a puppet of Moscow. This left the Communists with only one option, the Red Army, and next episode we will join them on their advance towards Warsaw.